Treating Kids Like Kids

By Zach Schalk
July 13, 2010 10:55 A.M. EDT

It seems that our nation’s highest court is finally catching up with neuroscience, at least when it comes to acknowledging the differences between juveniles and adults.  The Supreme Court’s ruling in Graham v. Florida, which banned the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole in non-homicide cases, is just the most recent step in the struggle to get our legal system up to speed with the latest scientific research.  As Mark Hansen reports for ABA Journal:

The majority based its decision in part on the scientific research into adolescent brain development first cited by the court five years ago in Roper v. Simmons, when it struck down the death penalty for juvenile offenders on the same grounds.

That evidence showed that adolescents, as a group, are more immature, more irresponsible, more susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, and more capable of long-term change than are adults, which the court said made them categorically ineligible for the death penalty.

“These differences render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders,” for whom the death penalty is reserved, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the 5-4 majority in Roper. “The susceptibility of juveniles to immature and irresponsible behavior means ‘their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.’ ”

But the truth is that the science used by the court to justify softening juvenile sentencing is only evidence of something that should be intuitive.  Of course kids are different from adults and should be treated thusly.  And, whether motivated by enlightened insight or the reality of shrinking budgets, states and localities are addressing the issues of the juvenile detention system in progressive manners. 

The Washington Post has reported on the improvements to the District’s juvenile justice agency and Ohio is looking to education as a key to reducing juvenile recidivism.  As reported in the Columbus Dispatch:

The purpose of the program is to get students performing at their grade level, but some research suggests it's also likely to keep them from getting locked up in the future.

A 2007 report by the Correctional Education Association states that going to school behind bars reduces the likelihood of being incarcerated again by 29 percent, arguing that education is the best crime deterrent.

Neither of these initiatives is perfect and there remains much work to be done.  Steps should be taken to make PREA an effective tool for juveniles as well as for adults in prison.  Communities should take responsibilities for their own youth and sentencing for non-violent crimes should be re-examined.  But whatever shortcomings remain apparent in our juvenile justice system, these and other recent headline grabbing changes are part of an encouraging trend.

By investing in our young people—educating even those who have broken the law in the past—we are investing in our future.  Giving kids in detention the tools they need to succeed when they get out, we are increasing the odds that they will never return.  And we should all agree that keeping kids out of trouble in the first place is the best solution. 

Posted on July 13, 2010 and filed under The Issues.